Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made his first big foreign policy mistake by calling off foreign secretary-level talks with Pakistan last week just as the latter’s envoy was meeting Kashmiri separatists. Modi impressed many with his astute outreach to smaller neighbours but this decision is arguably ill-advised as it can eventually create uncomfortable outcomes for India.
The prime minister is believed to have taken the decision to call off talks, but his motivations aren’t yet clear. Is this just a temporary hardline posture with an eye to the assembly elections in Jammu and Kashmir, where the BJP hopes to form the government for the first time? Did Modi conclude that his counterpart Nawaz Sharif was politically too weak now to deliver on trade, and thereby decided to slow down the process till the Afghan endgame is clearer? Was this merely a reprisal for ceasefire violations, to signal India’s low threshold for tolerating cross-border violence — or is there a view in New Delhi that putting Islamabad on notice helps forestalling future terrorist attacks?
We don’t know the answers yet but last week’s developments have far-reaching consequences. First, it is a real setback for the Sharif-Modi relationship as the former will be under greater pressure from religious groups and the army to take a harder line. Modi has to live with the fact that he has alienated the one power player in the Pakistani establishment who was seriously keen on pushing ties forward. Indian misgivings on the separatists meeting or other issues could have been privately relayed without a public spectacle, as analysts have pointed out. New Delhi could have kept channels open with Sharif by citing the ceasefire violations as the reason for calling off talks — to enable resumption of negotiations after a period of calm.
But by making India-Pakistan talks conditional on Islamabad having no contact with Kashmiri separatists, New Delhi will also be refreshing Kashmir as a cause in Pakistan’s internal politics — which has been in recession for a few years now. The Pakistani leadership pays lip service to Kashmiri separatists but has been ignoring them lately in the larger scheme of things. Militant leaders based in Pakistan complain that Islamabad neglects them while meetings of separatists with Pakistani dignitaries were little more than photo-ops. The new Indian move can revive offensive militant rhetoric and mar atmospherics in the coming months.
Kashmiris are also quite aggrieved and are beginning to wonder — as Islamabad will too — if this is part of an attempt to ultimately take Kashmir off the India-Pakistan bilateral agenda. Last week, that looked like the logical next step after the meeting with separatists became the bone of contention. If meeting separatists is seen as “unacceptable interference” — as it violates New Delhi’s position that Jammu & Kashmir is an integral part of India — then discussing Kashmir bilaterally also does not make sense. It did not come to that though as MEA spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin eventually mentioned the Simla Agreement — in effect reiterating that J&K was an issue for both India and Pakistan to still discuss. Diplomats may breathe easy for the moment but the unilateral rejection of Kashmiri separatists will continue to prompt doubts about Modi’s willingness to bilaterally engage on Kashmir. Many wonder if the PM has walked away from the ‘four-point formula’ that was discussed in the backchannel during the UPA years.
Looking to the future, Modi’s decision creates new diplomatic facts for Islamabad to reckon with. By insisting that the Simla Agreement did not envisage any third party, New Delhi has driven a technical wedge between Islamabad and the separatists. Backing separatists is now a clear red line for New Delhi while abandoning them makes Sharif look bad in Pakistan. Islamabad now has the choice of openly backing separatists as its domestic constituents want it to or it may want to ramp up militant violence to force India to the negotiating table — both of which easily play into the BJP’s hands.
Modi’s move also potentially alters the future of separatist politics. Separatists may try to revive protests soon to demonstrate their clout in the Valley as the NDA has undercut their claim to be the third player on the issue. But Pakistan may not stand by them over time in order to resume negotiations with India. If that happens, Modi’s decision will have, to an extent, succeeded in downsizing separatist resistance from being a factor in bilateral relations to becoming a subset in Indian politics, which Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and others may have to reconcile to.
J&K heads to assembly polls soon and the BJP stands to gain from any over-reaction to last week’s decision. Hostile rhetoric from Hafiz Saeed, firing across the Line of Control, more incidents of militant violence and separatist calls for boycott will all aid the BJP’s ambition to secure a majority in the assembly.
But Modi must know, as he looks to reap political dividends internally, that subordinating his Pakistan policy to the BJP’s (polarising) objectives in J&K generates the risk of hardening public attitudes on both sides, galvanising anti-Indian state and non-State actors in Pakistan, and prompting unrest in Kashmir if political concessions do not follow. Modi was applauded for inviting Sharif to his swearing-in which was seen as part of a larger outreach to reset ties with the neighbourhood. He must now aim to allay the impression that last week’s decision was made with party political imperatives in mind. The future of India-Pakistan relations depends in part on what kind of figure Modi wants to be. He should decide if he wants to be an ideological figure who backs the Hindutva agenda in Kashmir or be a statesman who transforms South Asia by building ties of interdependence. He cannot be both.